Good Old School Days
School days are something that everyone can relate to, and for better or worse we can all look back on these years with a sense of nostalgia, remembering the times we had, the friends we made, and occasionally, the lessons we learned.
In some ways schooling on Prince Edward Island has changed very little since its inception: a teacher still lectures at the front of a room filled with desks and pencils, writing notes on a board while students strive to stay awake; however, in many ways our schools are an entirely different place indeed.
In the very beginning of education on Prince Edward Island, only the wealthy and well off could afford to go to school at all. Prior to 1825 there was no free public education on Prince Edward Island, and if a student was to be educated formally they had to attend private schools out of province. This left little educational opportunity for the average rural residents of the area. Often it was enough that students could learn to read and write, at least rudimentarily, at home, and this would be sufficient for their lot in life (1). But as the Island progressed and developed, it soon became apparent that there was a growing need for a formal schooling system in the province, and so in 1825 legislation was passed mandating free public education to all the students of the Island. Work was soon underway in constructing these schools, and by 1841 there were 121 schoolhouses on Prince Edward Island (1).
Fortune Bridge Schoolhouse
These one room schoolhouses were typically built five kilometers apart, and were built by the people of the community who supplied both the labor and the materials for the job. They were often built quite close to a spring, so that the children would not have to carry a supply of water for any long distance, and the schools were typically placed as centrally in the district as possible, as students were expected to arrive to school on foot (1).
The Fortune Bridge School was initially located on the southeast corner of the intersection of Fortune Wharf Road and Route 310, right where the ‘Welcome to Fortune’ sign is now. But a new school was built in 1908, with the location moved across the road to sit just south of the Fortune Community Center (2). At that time Fortune Bridge School district consisted of a collection area of east of the Conohan Road on Route 2, running all the way to the bottom of the St. Charles Road, and extending south towards Eglington approximately to the Inn at Bay Fortune (2).
The contents of the school varied little from district to district, and Fortune Bridge School was no exception. The students sat in rows of double desks which faced a blackboard at the front of the room, while the walls were covered with maps and photos of the Queen and other prominent figures. Often the maps were supplied by the Neilsen’s Chocolate Company, and they featured not only a detailed map of Canada, but detailed depictions of Neilsen’s chocolate bars as well. A woodstove was often found at the center of the classroom, and it served to heat the entirety of the building, while “the privies for boys and girls were among the trees at the rear. Inside the door were rows of hooks for outer clothing, a row on one side for boys’ coats and a row on the other side for girls’” (1,2).
The classroom left much to be desired however, and its rather spartan appearance was found to be less than conducive for learning. One Fortune Bridge teacher, Clara Coffin, sought to do something about it. As she recalls, “the room was so dismal that the pupils and I began racking our brains for some ideas for brightening things up. The parents were informed and one lady let us have her home for card parties. We had several and raised enough money for paint, varnish, and window shades. Young people, older pupils and I painted the walls and ceiling, varnished seats and the floor. And oh, what a difference! The pupils took great pride in keeping the classroom clean and orderly, and we received great praise from ratepayers and the supervisor” (3).
The school day began at 9:30 with a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, and went until 3:00, with an hour break for lunch at noon, and the school year began on August 15th and extended until the end of June, leaving a six-week summer vacation for students, as well as a two-week break in October which coincided with potato digging (2). Classes ranged from 20-25 students, with the oldest being in Grade 10.
Student life was simple, yet vibrant, and consisted of many games and activities. In the winter time sledding and skating were common pastimes during the lunch hour, and in the warmer months games such as baseball were popular. Pageants and concerts were a frequent occurrence and highly anticipated, as were School Fairs, which took place annually at Fortune Bridge School. These fairs saw students from Rollo Bay West, Eglington, and Fortune Head School arrive at Fortune Bridge to compete in various show categories for prizes, and winners’ names were often printed in the newspaper. Further, ice-cream and candy was often made available on fair days, something that was otherwise unheard of at the time.
Another prominent teacher at Fortune Bridge School, Mrs. Joyce Dixon, recalls some of the mishaps that would occur during the day, especially considering the fact that there was only one teacher assigned to supervise a whole school full of children. As Mrs. Dixon writes, “the ball game out in the playground was going full swing when a small player swung too hard. The bat went flying and struck Leslie on the head. “Teacher, teacher, come quick!” Leslie was sitting holding his head while the blood flowed through his fingers down over his face. What to do! In a frenzy I wrapped a towel around his head and went to the road to hail a drive to Souris and a doctor. After a few stitches we were back at the school where the children were waiting in fear. They crowded around Leslie and gave him a hero’s welcome, and the small batter cried with relief. She thought she’d killed him” (Townshend).
The one room schoolhouses of the province proved to be the lifeblood of the Island for more than 100 years, however with the changing demographics and technologies of the Island, by the 1960s the one room schoolhouse method of education was no longer practical, nor feasible, and Consolidation was brought in during the 1960s. In our area Fortune Consolidated School and Rollo Bay Consolidated School were built, and by the end of that decade all of the one room school houses which had once dotted our Island landscape were closed forever. Like many of the old schoolhouses though, the old Fortune Bridge School still finds life to this day, as a cottage of sorts on Fortune Front Beach, where it can be seen hiding behind the marram grass, peeking out towards the sea.
The following is an excerpt from the song, “Farewell Song to the Old School”, which was written wistfully at the thought of the changes being undertaken in the school system at the time. It was written by Robert Emmett MacDonald, Little Pond, who was killed in action during World War II.
MacDonald, Rose Marie. “Those Were The Days”. ND. Print.
Townshend, Bonnie. “The Road to Fortune”. 2012. Print.
“Teachers Remember”. 1988. Print.